To Sir, with love

by E. R. Braithwaite

Paper Book, 1959



Call number



London : Bodley Head, [1959]

User reviews

LibraryThing member lostinalibrary
Born in British Guyana (now Guyana), E.R. Braithwaite was trained as an engineer, and after serving in the RAF during WWII, he expected he would have no trouble finding work in his chosen field in Great Britain. However, it became clear very quickly that no one was willing to hire him because of
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the colour of his skin. It was only due to a chance encounter that he decided to apply for a teaching job. Not surprisingly, he was assigned to a school with one of the worst reputations in the East End of London.

Despite the fact that Braithwaite is determined to see teaching as a job not a career, he decides to make the best of it. Unfortunately, his first weeks are a disaster. Not only the colour of his skin but his patrician upbringing, and his lack of training make it almost impossible for him to relate to his students. At first, the problems seem insurmountable. The children are belligerent and deliberately offensive, testing him at every opportunity and, at first, he retaliates with anger. But somewhere along the way, he reassesses his own attitude towards his students. He determines to change the rules; he will scrap the lesson plan and they can talk about anything as long as they treat each other with respect. To this end, he is to be called Sir, the girls will be addressed as Miss, and the boys by their last names. By treating these children as adults, he wins, not only their respect but their love.

Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel is a fascinating look at the effect a good teacher can have on their students. It also gives an interesting look at the hopes and dreams people from British colonial countries placed on Britain and how the reality was so far from those dreams:

“Yes, it is wonderful to be British – until one comes to Britain”

In the end, though, it is an inspiring tale of how minds and attitudes can be changed if people are willing to listen to and treat each other each other with respect. Written in 1959, I have read comments from other reviewers saying that this novel is outdated. Personally, I think its message has never been more fresh or more needed
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LibraryThing member mahsdad
The story of a black former WWII pilot and his experiences teaching in an inner city school in the East End of London. Written in 1959, my jaded 2019 mind was waiting for the drama and the proverbial shoe to drop, but it delightfully does not. Was the basis for the Sidney Poitier movie (which the
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author didn't really like). I never knew that it was based on Braithwaite's actual experience.
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LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
This is the inspiring true story of a teacher overcoming obstacles to give his students the best while also trying to make his own way in the world as a black man in a predominantly white country. Not exactly great literature, but it is cogently written and worth reading as a glimpse into the
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educational field, at race relations, and at another time and place.
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LibraryThing member breadcrumbreads
I must have been around eleven or twelve years old when I watched To Sir With Love (1967). It was a movie that moved me a great deal, not to mention Sidney Poitier's excellent acting! I never got to see it again after that first time, and was quite excited to come across only last week at a local
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book store. There was just one copy of the book with a very dignified Poitier gazing out from its cover.I grabbed it.Read it.It is a story about the experience Braithwaite had as a teacher - an authobiography that documents one stage on his life. Very well educated, Braithwaite works as an engineer until the Second World War calls him to a sense of his patriotic duty. He joins the R.A.F. and leads the life of a hero...until the war is over. Back in civilian clothes and confident about getting a good job with his excellent qualifications, Braithwaite suffers a terrible disillussionment when he finds that the colour of his skin brings out the prejudice in his fellow white Britons. For me personally, it is easy to relate to what he says in the following passage: The majority of Britons at home have very little appreciation of what that intangible yet amazingly real and invaluable export - The British Way of Life - means to colonial people; and they seem to give little thought to the fantastic phenomenon of races so very different from themselves in pigmentation, and widely scattered geographically, assiduously indentifying themselves with British loyalties, beliefs and traditions. This attitude can easily be observed in the way in which the coloured Colonial will quote the British systems of Law, Education and Government, and will adopt fashions in dress and social codes, even though his knowledge of these things has depended largely on secondhand information. All this is especially true of the West Indian Colonials, who are predominantly the descendants of slaves who were forever removed from the cultural influenc of their forefathers, and who lived, worked, and reared their children through the rigours of slavery and the growing pains of gradual enfrachisement, according to the only example they knew - the British Way.The ties which bind them to Britain are strong, and this is very apparent on each occasion of a Royal visit, when all of them, young and old, rich and poor, join happily together in unrestrained and joyful demonstrations of welcome. Yes, it is wonderful to be British - until one comes to Britain. By dint of careful saving or through hard-won scholarships many of them arrive in Britain to be educate in the Arts and Sciences and in the varied processes of legislative and administrative government. They come, bolstered by a firm, conditioned belief that Britain and the British stand for all that is best in both Christian and Democratic terms; in their naivete they ascribe these high principles to all Britons, without exception. I had grown up British in every way. Myself, my parents and my parents' parents, none of us knew or could know any other way of living, of thinking, of being; we knew no other cultural pattern, and I had never heard any of my forebears complain about being British. As a boy I was taught to appreciate English literature, poetry and prose, classical and contemporary, and it was absolutely natural for me to identify myself with the British heroes of the adventure stories against the villains of the piece who were invariably non-British, and so to my boy-ish mind, more easily capable of villainous conduct. The more selective reading of my college and university life was marked by the same predilectio as for English literature, and I did not hesitate to defend my preferences to my American colleagues.For two years Braithwaite struggles to find a job midst the prejudice that festers in the civilian world. At long last he gets a position as a teacher in a rather poor neighbourhood. It wasn't something he had been looking to do, and to top it of, his students would be white save for one child. My own experiences during the past two years invaded my thoughts, reminding me that these children were white; hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the difference between the haves and the have-nots. I wanted this job badly and I was quite prepared to do it to the best of my ability, but it would be a job, not a labour of love.But as teacher and students struggle to maintain a balance this story becomes a narrative not on black and white, but on a relationship slowly yet surely forged between a misfit bunch of children and their teacher, friend and guide. In fact, at one point as he is calling out attendance he mentions how it wasn't really necessary as he already knew who was absent:I could quickly spot an absence, so much a part of me the class had become.Of course, the struggle of the blacks does not take a back seat. We find how quick people are to assume the worst of a black man; how he is treated like filth even in a fancy restaurant where he is obviously more cultured and educated than the waiter; and even where doubts creep in with the reaction of others to his romantic relationship with Miss Blanchard, his white fellow-teacher. It is a struggle against a prejudice cloaked in British poise and etiquette. Braithwaite says it was easier for the black man in America to fight for his rights since the prejudice was so open and obvious. But in Britain it was hard to fight for rights, that on the surface, looked absolutely clear and proper. The story ends with the passing out of his very first class, but his story continues in other books on various stages of his life.The novel is written in the first person, and is very crisp and to the point. Each chapter is episodic in style, and though a short novel, it covers quite a bit of ground. I cannot say that the book moved me. In fact, I think the movie did that to me. Nevertheless, it keeps you interested and wondering - especially with regard to the relationship between Braithwaite and his students. This is a novel that teachers would relate to quite easily. I would say that this is a must read only for the themes that recur throughout the novel. However, it's yet another easy read.
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LibraryThing member maheswaranm
Wonderful book. A very easy read.
Like the blurb says "A book that the reader devours quickly, ponders slowly, and forgets not at all."

I still remember the details when we were studying this for our English lessons in school.
I don't think I could find anything bad about it.

Recommended for everyone!

LibraryThing member snuffles_lib
Memoirs of a Black in the land of the Whites, the struggles of E. R. Braithwaite in england, a country famous for its social fairness and equality. Mr. Braithwaite gives u an insight into the real picture... Its easy to make laws, but its not easy to make people believe in those laws...
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
E.R. Braithwaite is in the company of a select few: teachers who make a difference. Leaders in education have no trouble touching the lives of one or two of their students. That happens all the time, but to change an entire class is no small feat. I think that's why they make movies like "Dead
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Poet's Society" and "Mr. Holland's Opus." Such teachers are an inspiration to the of world education. Braithwaite enters the world of teaching by default. As an out-of-work engineer who cannot get a job due to the color of his skin he is forced to apply for positions outside his area of expertise. A chance meeting with a stranger leads him to apply for a position with the Greenslade Secondary School in London's ill reputed East End. There, Braithwaite meets children more callous and uncouth than any adult he's ever encountered. They are defiant and daring, determined to run Braithwaite out of school, just has they had done before. Only Braithwaite is not so easily cowed. And so begins the odyssey of E.R. Braithwaite and his remarkable story. He is able to turn thieves and would-be prostitutes into respectful, intelligent individuals.
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LibraryThing member NRTurner
I experienced an audio dramatisation with a dozen actors.
Moving story of a young man newly qualified as an engineer trying to make his way in the world.
Frustrated by the prejudices he meets at every turn, the narrator is forced to consider his options.
Searingly honest and heartfelt story of a man's
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struggle to live a decent life in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
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LibraryThing member ashishg
I had seen the movie more than a decade ago and remembered having great impressions of it, so considering that book is a classic and short read, I finally managed to read the book recently. It's a good book, but not great. My review is going to be biased because I am writing this 70 years after the
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The story is simple, and events are not as dramatic. A black man's experience in post-war London is not surprising with the context of history, and few key events in his short teaching history aren't extraordinary. Perhaps with the vantage of change in time, I am immune, but addressing students respectfully and treating them as an adult doesn't appear to be a such as dramatic act on part of Mr. Braithwaite. I can understand though how it may have differed from his contemporaries at that time. Similarly, hardships he encountered from students are unusual for a school, for sure, but were easily handled with basic courtesy and civility. His success with students in very short tenure of nine months is noteworthy but also give an aura of unbelievability. Any parent who has gone through a litany of books on parenting only to find that they don't work on his or her child knows the reaction towards self-congratulatory awesome work by the author in the classroom.

That said, the book narrates a simple chronological account of events in a school. It's a light read and didn't leave me with any thought-provoking questions.
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LibraryThing member SheTreadsSoftly
To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite has been recently re-released by Open Road Media and is highly recommended for the intelligent narrative as well as the historical perspective on racism.

Originally written in 1959 and set in the post WWII tough East End of London, To Sir, With Love is a
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nonfiction account of a well-educated 28 year old man from Guyana who stumbles upon his teaching career by accident when he cannot find another job due to his skin color. Braithwaite accepts the teaching position, but makes it clear that he "did not become a teacher out of any sense of vocation; mine was no considered decision in the interests of youthful humanity or the spread of planned education. It was a decision forced on me by the very urgent need to eat; it was a decision brought about by a chain of unhappy experiences which began about a week after my demobilization from the Royal Air Force in 1945." (Location 448)

After being jobless for 18 months, "Disillusionment had given place to a deepening, poisoning hatred; slowly but surely I was hating these people who could so casually, so unfeelingly deny me the right to earn a living. I was considered too well educated, too good for the lowly jobs, and too black for anything better."(Location 607)

He finds himself at Greenslade Secondary School in charge of 40 students. His initial encounter with the students is not what he expected: "I felt shocked by the encounter. My vision of teaching in a school was one of straight rows of desks, and neat, well-mannered, obedient children. The room I had just left seemed like a menagerie.... Was it the accepted thing here? Would I have to accept it too? "(Location 161)

The majority of the children could be generally classified as difficult with a disregard for authority. They are poorly fed, clothed and housed. They face a multitude of difficulties in an environment that is lacking in every way, however, as Braithwaite points out, they are, as a majority, white. He has faced numerous difficulties and hurdles based on his skin color. Certainly these children can be taught to overcome their limitations.

Braithwaite is very blunt and, well, insulting, in some of his descriptions and this is especially noticeable at the beginning of the book. For all his difficulties endured due to racism, clearly sexism was also a prevalent part of the times. I had to take into consideration the time in which it was originally written and place it in a historical context.

If you have seen the movie, it is impossible to read the book To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite without picturing Sidney Poitier and hearing the song sung by Lulu.
While there are many similarities, there are many differences too. The book is set in the late 1940s while the movie, released in 1967, changed the setting to the 60's. The book also deals openly with questions of race and the overt prejudice Braithwaite felt in Great Britain. The timeline for some events in the book is changed around for the movie. In comparison to the sombrer tone of the book, the movie feels light-hearted.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Open Road Media via Netgalley for review purposes.
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LibraryThing member SashaM
Fascinating look at post WWII east end life from the POV of a black teacher. I have to go and find the movie now - I wonder if it is a movie that Hollywood would make now or if it would be too much for them?
LibraryThing member cathyskye
I must be on a sentimental journey involving some of my favorite films and the books they were based on. First, it was The Shrinking Man, and now it's To Sir, With Love.

This time, the book compares very favorably to the movie. In the book, we see everything through the eyes of "Sir" instead of
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being an outsider-looking-in as we are in the movie. There are several things that were either glossed over or not even brought up in the movie-- in many cases I think the filmmakers wanted the audience to use common sense to realize, for instance, that the reason why Braithwaite could not get an engineering position was due to racism, not the fact that there were no jobs available. In fact, almost everything relating to racism was left out of the movie, no doubt in an effort to make it palatable to the greatest number of moviegoers.

My final verdict? I still love the movie starring Sidney Poitier; I always will. But I am very glad that I read E.R. Braithwaite's autobiography. In reading the book I feel as though I've gotten much closer to learning the entire story while the movie gives me the Reader's Digest condensed version.
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LibraryThing member Zankhana
This book is a "must-read" if you have a mentor who changed your life, uplifted your true talents and encouraged you to be better day after day.
Brathwaite, the protagonist of the story, is the true definition of a mentor. An ex-RAF officer, when he comes to London for a decent job, he is rejected
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at all the places that he applies, due to his skin colour. Although, the reasons given to him for rejection are stupid ones. Hence, the image that he had of a modern London - of treating everyone equal breaks; and thus dejected, he applies as an English teacher in East London.
The students at the school, being brought up in shanty areas, do not impress him enough. But he takes on the job with the reminder that he needs to feed himself and this job is just enough to do that for a while. When the classes commence and he interacts with his students and understands them slowly and gradually, he realises that it is in his power whether he should improve their minds or let them be.
And thus begins a journey of building up their manners, attitudes towards each other and their brains to survive in the professional world they will soon be stepping into. This class now no longer is just an English class. Among the many things that he teaches them, he is also successful in liberating their hearts from racialism.
This book is filled with pure empathy, encouragement and eloquence.
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LibraryThing member TerriS
This book is wonderful! I didn't realize that it is non-fiction, which makes it even better! The author tells the story of his beginnings as a teacher in London and the racial prejudice that he faced during that era (the book was written in 1959). He tells of his trials and accomplishments with the
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students, and of his relationship with a white woman/fellow teacher. This book was much more that I expected -- I highly recommend it!!
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LibraryThing member ScoLgo
Overall, nearly a five-star read for me. To Sir, With Love is a remarkable story. The writing is exceptionally clear and to the point while the characters spring to life on the page. My one small issue; I felt as though Braithwaite bathed himself in an overly rosy light at times. Being an
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autobiography, I understand that we only get one side of the stories presented. As such, I found myself wondering how the children and other faculty might remember those days?

Regardless of this one small issue, after more than half a century since its release, the book remains eminently readable and still resonates deeply. It is a snapshot of the times - at least as how the times were perceived by a person of color with a privileged upbringing. The fact that Braithwaite went on to become ambassador does speak volumes for his credibility so perhaps events really did happen precisely how he portrays.
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